CLEOPATRA: A Life
By Stacy Schiff, Little, Brown, 368 pp., $29.99
The cover of Stacy Schiff's newest biography, Cleopatra: A Life, shows a woman adorned in pearls, her face hidden from the viewer. Despite being burdened with "one of the busiest afterlives in history"--there is a video game named for her, as well as an asteroid and a cigarette-very little is known for certain about this most famous Egyptian queen, whose four children were fathered by two of the most powerful men of the era: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. We do not know, for example, who her mother was, how long Cleopatra spent in Rome, how often she was pregnant, whether she actually married Mark Antony, how she died. We don't even know if she was beautiful--the most accurate rendering of history's favorite femme fatale is a gold coin minted during her reign, likely approved by her, depicting a hook-nosed, large-eyed woman.
It is a safe bet that she was extraordinarily well educated (Plutarch says she spoke nine languages), fabulously wealthy (she handed out ships and gold to her lovers), and uncommonly gifted in the social graces. Cicero, who detested the queen, also described her as one who could "make others laugh in spite of themselves." Schiff posits a childhood spent playing with terracotta dolls and pet mice and acknowledges, with an honesty lacking in her historical sources, the limits of her powers as a biographer. Author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), as well as books on Benjamin Franklin and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Schiff has earned a reputation as a biographer of prodigious gifts. In attempting to chronicle the life of Cleopatra, however, she faced insurmountable challenges. These she enumerates early on in the book: the most prolific sources on Cleopatra are biased and contradictory; no papyri survive from Cleopatra's Alexandria, now largely buried; in fact, only one word survives from the last great Egyptian ruler--ginesthoi, Greek for "let it be done"--and it may have been written by a scribe. Accepting the impossibility of filling in the blanks at a remove of more than 2,000 years, Schiff has instead "corralled the possibilities." The result is a narrative that never quite hits its stride and is plagued by such absurdities as a lovingly rendered trip up the Nile, immortalized by Shakespeare, which may or may not have occurred. "On shore the date trees hung thick with fruit, the palm fronds slightly faded.... It was peach...